It has often been said this campaign season: if Obama can show that he is willing and able to do what’s necessary to protect the country, he will win the election. That’s probably true, and he’s spent much of the last month trying to improve his foreign and national security credentials. But the relative importance of Obama’s position on the “safety” spectrum will wax or wane depending on how the public perceives the threats facing the nation. McCain, on the other hand, is actively losing ground on an entirely different spectrum that might not seem important to him, but has seemed crucial to voters in recent elections: “Would you like to have a beer with this guy?”
In the 2000 election, McCain performed well in this category early in the campaign. He was the down-to-earth candidate, beloved in the meeting halls, free with a joke and always telling it straight. You could imagine sharing a pint with the guy — and if you lived in New Hampshire, chances were you actually clinked glasses with him. George W. Bush, on the other hand, was the hand-picked establishment guy, whose plastic smile was seen beaming from the TVs in the local pub. It wasn’t until McCain began reacting angrily to Bush’s tactics in South Carolina that the public began to turn sharply against the Senator.
The internal McCain campaign rationalization of its fall in 2000 has always been a mixture of dirty tricks and limited resources. I’ve always thought its demise was better found in McCain’s attack-dog demeanor as things stopped going his way in South Carolina. The moment of truth was his sharp attack on Christian leaders in late February, followed by his odd attack on Bush as “anti-Catholic” for visiting Bob Jones University during the South Carolina primary. Suddenly, the guy you thought was cool when you had a drink with him last week was the hot-tempered crank who thought people like your mom were out to get him. In a close race where nonideological independents were crucial, McCain lost all his “beer votes” and sunk abruptly on Super Tuesday.
There was a time during the 2008 campaign I thought McCain would be the substantive candidate. Obama was all about “hope” and “change” and embodying the best of America, but he seemed to have forgotten entirely that we elect presidents to be principled policy leaders, not rock stars. In sharp contrast, McCain seemed focused like a laser beam on substance. On a daily basis, his campaign churned out white papers, agendas, and projects for every pressing issue facing the country. He got comparatively little press, but he was building a body of work that had to be taken seriously.
This was a cunning tactical approach. As exhilarating as Obama’s rise had been, it was an emotional one. Emotion can win you the White House, but could raw emotion be sustained over the long haul of a modern campaign? And while political affinity can often survive occasional embarrassments, emotional connections are much more easily severed by minor scandals and gaffes. One could foresee a future where the public would get sick of being told how great Obama is for eighteen straight months, culminating in what would be an orgy of Obama love in Denver. Meanwhile, McCain would be waiting politely for his closeup in Minnesota. Disaffected voters, wondering if there was a pragmatic candidate with a plan for fixing the future rather than bathing in his own aura, would find John McCain, his smile, and his details, details, details. Suddenly, McCain would find himself up by five points by Labor Day, and the whole dynamic of the race would change.
Unfortunately, McCain has spent the last two weeks abandoning this strategy and reliving his self-inflicted demise from 2000. Rather than speaking intelligently about policy and ignoring perceived injustices, he’s been pouting about media attention and complaining about Obama’s speech in Berlin. While Obama has been talking about Afghanistan and Iraq, McCain has been running ads where Paris Hilton and Britney Spears meld into Obama’s glowing visage. Instead of taking the high road and waiting for Obama’s star to fade on its own, McCain has taken it upon himself to snuff it out.
Of course, he can’t do that. The media is the keeper of the light, and until the media decides to dim it, the light will be on Obama. Ironically, though, many voices in the mainstream media had begun to turn on Obama at the precise moment McCain turned sour. But once “bad John” emerged onto the scene, those contrary minds snapped back into line. After all, would you rather spent four years covering a pompous phenomenon or your cranky grandpa as president?
In the process of lashing out at his rival, McCain has opened himself up to the same kind of “character” attacks that have dogged Obama since his trip to Europe. Where Obama is arrogant, now McCain is whiny. Obama plays coy with throngs of openly-adoring media types, but McCain grumpily counts heads at his press conferences. And every time that McCain chooses to point out Obama’s profound narcissism, he is exposing his own intemperate egotism, a character flaw that has remarkably remained absent from this campaign.
Someone in the McCain campaign needs to tell the candidate that, even if he proves himself the most capable, prepared, wise, and brave man running for president in 2008, if the public thinks he’s a jerk, he will lose. I don’t know if there’s polling on this, but I would wager that the candidate voters would most like to have a brew with has won every presidential election since 1980. The senator from Arizona has an edge on this one from the start. It’s a lot easier to imagine Obama sipping a pinot noir than downing a frothy pint, and he’d probably look as comfortable in most beer joints as he did in a Pennsylvania bowling alley. John McCain may not be the nicest guy in the race, but he can win the pub vote if he maintains his flinty, pleasant, above-the-fray demeanor. If he keeps barking at the guy on the TV set, though, watch the patrons start filing out.